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Data Journalism + Personal Storytelling = Brave New World? – by Laura Hadden


We are pleased to present posts by StoryCenter staff, storytellers, colleagues from partnering organizations, and thought leaders in Storywork and related fields.

Data Journalism + Personal Storytelling = Brave New World? – by Laura Hadden

Emily Paulos

In the world of storytelling, words and numbers have a complicated relationship.

When I was an Americorps*VISTA volunteer at the Center for Digital Storytelling, I was privileged enough to bear witness to hundreds of stories. Sitting in that circle and listening to folks from all walks of life share of themselves and their experiences never got old and, when my time at CDS came to an end, I carried so many of those stories with me into the world.

I knew that the experience had changed me fundamentally, but couldn’t quite figure out how and what that change actually meant. I was also trying to figure out what storytelling meant for the world at large beyond developing a greater sense of empathy for individuals. I would like to believe that increasing empathy in the world and storytellers taking control of their narratives are in and of themselves radical acts that create an inevitable domino effect of healing communities and rebuilding broken systems, but some days it seems like that burden is just too heavy to bear. How do we, not necessarily as storytellers, but as members of the storytelling community, communicate how individual stories relate to these systems on an institutional and societal level? How can we find patterns in individual experiences that suggest new solutions?

Although I still feel like my feet are firmly planted in the personal storytelling world, these questions have lead me to take a closer look at what can be learned by data-driven journalism. At first glance, data and stories can seem like strange bedfellows – data journalism creates narrative out of facts while personal storytelling (especially out of the oral history and documentary tradition) creates facts out of stories. By sharing our stories, we provide a public record of events and experiences that become evidence. While personal storytelling provides intimate insight into the emotional and physical realities of individual experience, it often cannot provide a sense of perspective and context that is so well captured by data journalism but which, in turn, often glosses over the narratives of individuals.

For example, this visualization of rape convictions in the UK shows that over the 78,000 estimated rapes that happen every year in the UK, only 1,153 of them turn into convictions. The numbers are staggering and data visualization allows us to take a broad view of the system, seeing at which point along the process cases leave the system along with a statistical breakdown of reported explanations as to why. Although we don’t know the story of any one case, the sheer magnitude and numbers behind the data visualization are impossible to ignore. It’s not something that happened to one person or even a handful of people willing to come forward and tell their story, the data visualization allows us to recognize the epidemic of rape as a part of a broken system, regardless of whether individuals want to share their stories or not. 

What the visualization doesn’t tell us, however, is why we should care. If this visualization was our only basis for understanding sexual violence, we wouldn’t grasp the lasting impact that sexual violence has on individuals' lives and the ways in which multiple factors can interact and complicate the pursuit of justice. We even run the risk of making incorrect assumptions about the data’s meaning as well as depriving survivors of their basic right to be respected and understood as an individual rather than a statistic.   

With these strengths and weaknesses of both forms of storytelling in mind, I have begun to seek out examples of work that combine the strengths of both data-driven storytelling and personal storytelling to a powerful end. One of my favorite in my search thus far has been the National Film Board of Canada’s Here At Home, a web documentary about mental health and homelessness that takes us inside the Mental Health Commission of Canada's At Home pilot project. While the project shares anonymous data on the types of mental illness, average income, educational background, and other recent events in their life (for example, percentage of participants who had been robbed in the 6 months before the study), it also provides individual stories for project participants and caseworkers. Additionally, it features data about the environments that the participants are in, such as weather, cost of hospitalization, and overall homeless population, that uniquely impact their experience. The resulting project not only increases my empathy to individuals with mental illness facing homelessness, it makes me aware of other factors that impact their struggle.

Projects like Here At Home have really opened up my thinking about the potential of storytelling and inspired me to embark upon a project combining elements of both personal storytelling that I learned at CDS and the very basics principles of data journalism in looking at income inequality. In Wage/Working (a time-based installation I am working on in collaboration with Tennessee Watson), we are profiling local workers about their relationship to their job and then editing their stories to a length which corresponds with the amount of time it takes them to earn a dollar, creating an inverse relationship between monetary value and time. Those who earn the least are given the most time to speak and the actual value of time can be experienced and internalized by those experiencing the installation, drawing attention to the contrast between the workers at the both ends of the range and profiling workers across the spectrum.

My hope is that by bringing personal storytelling and data together, we can honor personal experiences, understand the broader picture, and begin to imagine new solutions.

Wage/Working is a multimedia collaboration by Tennessee Watson & Laura Hadden as a part of an AIR Live Interactive Residency at free103point9 Wave Farm, and WGXC 90.7-FM in Acra, NY. Financial support was provided, in part, by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), which believes that a great nation deserves great art.